Duck women dominate with defense
There was muscle. There was memory. And there was plenty of muscle memory on display Sunday afternoon at Matthew Knight Arena.
Oregon's third-ranked women's basketball team delivered a focused and intense bit of payback in beating 19th-ranked Arizona State 79-48 in front of another appreciative sellout crowd of 12,364.
The Ducks' 10th win in a row set up their next test: an 8 p.m. Friday showdown with 10th-ranked UCLA in Los Angeles that just might decide the Pac-12 regular-season championship. Oregon is 22-2, 11-1 in conference. UCLA is 21-2, 10-2.
"That's going to be a tough one. It's another ranked team," Oregon coach Kelly Graves said with a smile after the satisfying win over ASU — a performance that featured the kind of head-spinning scoring blitzes and the signature 3-point shooting that stretches defenses to their breaking point.
The Ducks, we know, can outscore just about any outfit. But the bedrock of the 10-game win streak since the unexpected 72-66 Jan. 10 loss at Tempe, Arizona, has been at the other end of the floor.
The Ducks have dialed in on defense and dialed up their intensity. The result: seven of their 10 opponents in the run have failed to reach 60 points. The most an Oregon opponent has scored in the last 10 games is 64 points.
Impressive stuff, especially since seven of those foes were ranked — four in the top 10.
Graves said energy and focus on defense is not only frustrating foes but also adding fuel to Oregon's offense.
"They're paying attention in practice. We're watching more film than we did early in the year," Graves said of the defense, which switched between man-to-man and a couple of zones to keep the Sun Devils guessing. "It's February. February leads to March, and March leads to April. Our kids know that the end is coming, so we want to make sure that we're playing our best basketball and continue to improve each day, and I think we are."
It's a safe bet Arizona State would agree after scoring two points in the first quarter, only 15 by halftime and settling for a season-low 48 in the 31-point Oregon rout.
The Ducks beat ASU at its own game — which is to say they were up for the physical battle coach Charli Turner Thorne's teams always bring.
On a day when the Ducks scored 30 points in the third quarter and made 13 3-pointers, the numbers that jumped from the statistics were defensive ones: ASU finished with seven assists and 18 turnovers (and needed a relatively clean fourth quarter to be that efficient). The Ducks outrebounded the Devils 20-8 at that end of the court, limiting Arizona State to three second-chance points. And Oregon made 11 steals, the 12th time this season the Ducks have made at least 10 and their seventh double-digit steals game in the 10-game win streak.
On Sunday, six steals were by 5-8 Minyon Moore.
The senior transfer from USC struggled through a 1-of-9 shooting afternoon, but Graves wanted to make sure Moore's impact was appreciated after she contributed four assists and four rebounds and kept the pressure on with her speed.
"That kid comes in and changes the whole game," Graves said. "(Moore) puts so much pressure on them defensively that they just can never really get into sync."
The same can often be said for ASU's in-your-face defense. It took Oregon almost five minutes to score its first points. Eventually, muscle memory kicked in. Sabrina Ionescu was 3 for 3 from behind the arc in the first half on her way to a game-high 19 points. Erin Boley and Jaz Shelley were a combined 8 for 10 on 3-pointers, and Satou Sabally was 2 for 3.
Shelley was 4 for 4 from distance on her way to 14 points. Graves noted that the freshman from Australia had joined Ionescu Sunday for some early-morning shooting drills.
"(Shelley) was serious about this, and it paid off out there," Graves said. "She needs that confidence, and hopefully this will give her some."
The Ducks have every reason to be oozing confidence entering the stretch run. But not overconfidence. Overconfident players don't put in extra practice. Overconfident teams don't learn from getting beat.
Sunday, the Ducks got back at Arizona State in a big way, continuing their trend of throttling teams in the third quarter. They played like a team that still has plenty to prove.
As Shelley said: "It was definitely a revenge game for us. We knew that we shouldn't have lost that game (at Arizona State), so we had fire in our belly to come out here and show them how we can really play."
It's no secret the Ducks can really play. If they continue to defend at an elite level, it will take something extra special to beat them.
• Fans of Oregon men's basketball are surely hoping N'Faly Dante heals soon and Francis Okoro can re-emerge as a contributor inside. But Kenny Wooten was the big man I thought about on Saturday as Oregon State took it to the Ducks in the second half at Gill Coliseum.
Wooten is averaging 7.5 points and 3.6 blocks in 24 minutes per game for the Westchester Knicks of the NBA G League. If Wooten had stayed at Oregon, the point-blank baskets OSU used to turn the tables would have been more difficult to finish.
I'm not arguing that Wooten should have stayed, or that his presence would have guaranteed a Ducks victory in Corvallis. But as UO coach Dana Altman stood in a basement hallway addressing another loss at Oregon State, listing shortcomings in the same frustrated cadence he used after last season's defeat at Gill Coliseum, I did think about Ducks who weren't there. And the Beavers who were there.
All five Oregon State starters were playing in a Civil War for at least the third time. They were rightly rewarded for playing the second half with an energy that rivalry games demand.
Oregon? Payton Pritchard has played in seven Civil War games (and is 3-4). Will Richardson played 43 minutes off the bench in the two games last season (and is 0-3 against the Beavers). No one else wearing green had experienced the Civil War until Saturday.
To be sure, these Ducks have had ineffective stretches like Saturday's second half in other arenas, too. Whether it's confusion or a lack of confidence, they too easily fall into funks where they stand around waiting for Pritchard to make a play.
Their lack of experience — in Pac-12 play and in playing together — has been evident all winter. If not for Pritchard's heroics at Washington and in home wins over Arizona and USC, the Ducks would have no shot at a conference crown.
But a shot they have. The Ducks will play five of their final seven games at Matt Knight. Beat Colorado on Thursday, and they're back in a tie for first place.
Oregon is going to be in the NCAA Tournament. Before Saturday's loss, it was a No. 4 seed in the first NCAA in-season release of 16 projected seeds. But the Ducks have fallen to No. 17 in this week's AP poll and to No. 25 in the NET rankings.
As Pritchard noted after the loss to OSU, these Ducks are still in a better spot than they were a year ago — and that team won 10 in a row to reach the Sweet 16. Altman has a track record of getting his team to play its best basketball when it matters most. So counting these Ducks out because of a couple ugly halves would be foolish. Then again, they sure seemed to be a more confident team in December than they are now.
"We just aren't making the progress we need to make, and that's on me. We're not playing as well as we should. We're not competing like we should," Altman said. "I don't think we've gone backwards. It's just (other teams) are getting better and we're not."
Colorado is the most experienced team in the Pac-12, having returned every key contributor from the 2018-19 squad that finished 23-13. Led by junior guard McKinley Wright IV, the Buffaloes come to the Willamette Valley ranked No. 14, their highest position in six years.
Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle hopes Saturday's win can be a turning point for his team. Three of four conference wins for the Beavers are against teams currently 1-2-3 in the standings — testament to the welcome parity and competitiveness in the Pac-12 and reason for Beavers fans to believe their team might be the one to get hot and run the table at the conference tournament.
Other than a trip to the Arizona schools, OSU doesn't leave the state until that tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada. Playing four of seven at home down the stretch gives the Beavs a chance to turn the Civil War win into the start of a special finish.
• In the wake of Monday's news that Concordia University is ceasing operations at the end of the 2019-20 calendar, only four home games remain for the Cavaliers men's and women's basketball teams.
On Thursday, the Cavs women play host to Saint Martin's at 6:15 p.m. followed by the men's game against Simon Fraser. On Saturday, the men play host to Western Washington at 6:15 p.m. followed by the women facing Seattle Pacific.
The final games in program history will happen Feb. 27 and Feb. 29, when the Alaska schools visit LCEF Court for men's and women's games.
The Concordia men are 3-19, 2-12 and last in the NCAA Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference. The Concordia women are 4-18 and ninth in the 11-team GNAC at 3-11.
• With four games left, Lewis & Clark is a game out of the fourth men's playoff spot in the Northwest Conference. The Pioneers are 9-12, 5-7. Fourth-place Pacific Lutheran is 6-6. Lewis & Clark visits sixth-place Puget Sound on Friday and plays host to third-place Linfield on Saturday. The Pioneers finish with games Feb. 21 at George Fox and Feb. 22 at home against PLU.
• In Cascade Collegiate Conference men's basketball, Multnomah plays its final two home games needing wins Friday against Northwest Christian and Saturday against Corban to strengthen its playoff hopes. With four games left, the Lions (6-10) hold the last of eight playoff spots. They are two games up on ninth-place Corban. … Warner Pacific (8-8) is sixth, but will look to move up when it plays fifth-place Northwest Christian on Saturday.
• In Cascade Conference women's basketball, Warner Pacific can lock up a playoff spot with one more win. The Knights (12-12, 9-7 CCC) are sixth entering their final home games, Friday against Corban and Saturday versus Northwest Christian.
• The Portland women will play host to Santa Clara at 7 p.m. Thursday and San Francisco at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Pilots (14-10, 7-6) are in a three-team tie for fourth in the West Coast Conference with five games left. Fourth place is big because the top four teams get byes until the quarterfinal round of the WCC tournament. Last week, the Pilots won at Saint Mary's then lost a close game at Pacific despite a career-high 32 points from Kate Andersen.
• The Portland State men scored 60 points in the paint and shot 57.1% on Monday in a 83-71 at Northern Colorado. That came two days after PSU shot 25%, including 2 of 23 on 3-pointers, in a 28-point loss at Southern Utah. Portland State is 12-13, 6-7 in the Big Sky but has a chance to climb with five of its final seven games at home, starting with a 7 p.m. Saturday game against second-place Eastern Washington.
• The Portland State women (12-11, 6-7 Big Sky) have lost three in a row and will have to rediscover their confidence on the road, where they play their next three games.
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